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Boeing Co. and the Federal Aviation Administration’s response to two fatal crashes involving the 737 Max plane is still missing a key ingredient: accountability.
Grief has shifted quickly to blame amid troublesome questions about Boeing’s apparent attempts to minimize the differences between the Max and older 737 models in an effort to speed development and the FAA’s seeming willingness to let it do so. After initially being caught in an isolated defense of the Max’s airworthiness as regulators around the globe grounded the plane, Boeing and the FAA are attempting to steer the conversation away from what went wrong with promises to do better in the future. Regulators from the Transportation Department and the FAA are due to appear before the Senate on Wednesday and will vow to improve their oversight, while Boeing is pitching a fix for the anti-stall flight-control software that’s thought to have been a factor in both crashes to the media, pilot groups and airline executives at its Renton, Washington manufacturing facility.
Yes, things need to change. But you can’t look forward until you’ve properly looked back. To truly rebuild faith in both the Max and themselves, Boeing and the FAA need to be honest about the mistakes that were made and accept responsibility for allowing their relationship to get too cozy for either’s own good. It’s not clear that either is prepared to do that yet.
Acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell is expected to acknowledge that oversight needs to “evolve,” but he will he will defend the agency’s long-standing policy of outsourcing certification work to company employees. He will argue that the review of the Max was “detailed and thorough,” noting that “time yields more data to be applied for continued analysis and improvement.” The problem is that the data now include the deaths of 346 people who boarded Max planes with the expectation they would arrive at their destination safely, and that the time for continued analysis and improvement would have been after the first crash back in October.
One of the biggest outstanding questions for me is, if this software system can be so easily and cheaply remedied, why wasn’t there more urgency? I’m particularly struck by the fact that Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel’s written testimony reportedly says that changes to the FAA’s oversight of certification work done by Boeing employees will come partly as a response to a 2015 report from his office highlighting holes in that system. That was four years ago.
Elwell will testify that regulators were involved in evaluating the flight-control software in question. Their involvement doesn’t absolve them of the fact that the safety analysis submitted by Boeing as part of the certification process reportedly contained serious flaws that went either unnoticed or underappreciated. These include understating the degree to which the software — known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — could push the plane’s nose down and allowing the system to rely on readings from only one sensor, according to the Seattle Times.
Boeing, meanwhile, is avoiding directly addressing why the MCAS system had these shortcomings in the first place in its conversations with pilots and airline officials, choosing instead to focus on the fact that there is a fix, according to the New York Times. It’s not helping the planemaker’s case that in simulations of a situation similar to what is thought to have occurred in the crash of a Lion Air jet in October, pilots found they had less than 40 seconds to override the system’s efforts to push the plane into a dive. And the government seems willing to throw Boeing under the bus a bit here: Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told the Senate that she questions the planemaker’s offering of safety features that could have helped the pilots involved in the two crashes as an option that costs extra. Boeing will reportedly now make standard a warning light meant to indicate different readings from the sensors that can trigger the anti-stall software.
The reason why accountability is important is because this is no longer just about getting the blessing of the FAA, which has tentatively approved the fix, according to the Wall Street Journal. Regulators from China and Europe stunningly undercut the word of the FAA when they decided to ignore its declarations of safety and ground the Max. China has since threatened to exclude the Max from a list of purchasing commitments in trade negotiations with the U.S.; announced a $35 billion order for Airbus SE jets that’s nearly double what was touted a year ago; and suspended a certificate of airworthiness for the Max in a sign it will act on its own timetable when deciding to return the plane to the skies.
Airlines are feeling the pain from the grounding, with Southwest Airlines Co. saying the unexpected loss of capacity, combined with weak leisure-travel demand, will reduce first-quarter sales by $150 million. But by and large, U.S. and European carriers have stood by the plane. It’s consumers that Boeing really has to worry about. It’s extremely telling that travel site Kayak.com added a filter to let fliers search by aircraft type. And those passengers are going to want to see a reckoning of what went wrong — and get a clear sense of what will be done to improve oversight to help prevent future tragedies — before they feel comfortable not using that filter.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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